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LOS ANGELES — They left the court stoic but dazed, unsure entirely of what had just happened as college basketball got its Hollywood ending at their expense.
An Ohio State basketball team that traditionally saves its best basketball for March reserved its worst shooting of the season for last during a 70-66 loss to No. 9 seed Wichita State in Saturday night’s NCAA West regional final at Staples Center.
Second-seeded OSU spotted the Shockers a 20-point second-half lead as if to set up its most dramatic finish in a postseason laced with them. But this time, even as the Buckeyes tore within three points in the final minutes, time ran out on their season.
“It hurts,” guard Aaron Craft said. “We’ve been playing pretty great, pretty well together. We’ve found a way to win a couple games we probably shouldn’t have won in the past couple games, and it seems like everything caught up with us. It’s tough.”
When time yields perspective, the season will be remembered as a success. An OSU team that lost All-American forward Jared Sullinger and deadeye Libbey graduate William Buford from last year’s Final Four run and struggled to find a shred of an identity through the season’s first three months improbably won 11 straight games to shove the Buckeyes into a second-straight Elite Eight for the first time in more than 50 years.
Yet, fair or not, the year will be remembered almost as sharply for the sense of an opportunity lost — the missed chance for Ohio State to flex its muscles one more time, kick dust in Cinderella’s face, and advance to the semifinals for a second-straight year.
Instead, Wichita State joined George Mason, Butler, VCU, and the rest of the little guys gone big while Ohio State was left to consider how everything went so wrong.
A team at its best in transition instead became gridlocked in a hail of half-court misses as Wichita State packed in its defense. A day after Shockers coach Gregg Marshall branded Deshaun Thomas as a “bad-shot taker and a bad-shot maker,” the Buckeyes’ leading scorer and his teammates were just plain bad-shot missers.
Thomas’ early air ball on a clean open 3 was only the start of a bleak first 30 minutes for the Buckeyes. OSU shot 24.2 percent (8 of 33) and had zero points off turnovers in the first half while it only got worse to start the second as the Shockers built their lead to as many as 20 at 53-33 with 12:08 remaining.
In all, not one Ohio State player shot better than 40 percent. Thomas was 8 for 20 with 23 points, Craft was 2 for 12, LaQuinton Ross was 4 for 12, Shannon Scott was 2 for 7, and so on. With easy looks rare — OSU had no fast-break points — the Buckeyes shot a season-low 31.1 percent (19 of 61) overall.
Wichita State did not play above its head, shooting 37.3 percent. The Buckeyes were just that off.
When a reporter asked Matta, “How and why do you think you lost this game,” the coach’s eyes widened incredulously.
“Were you in there?” he asked. “Thirty-one percent.”
“We weren’t able to, in the first half, to draw the line and get the stops, get the bucket when we needed one,” Matta added. “You’re not going to win in the Elite Eight shooting 24 percent in the first half.”
“The way we shot the ball coming into the Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen, man, everything was falling,” said Thomas, who said he will decide whether to return for his senior season in the coming weeks. “But just today wasn’t our day.”
At least not until it was too late. Ohio State made a furious late charge, with a pair of free throws by Scott cutting Wichita State’s lead to three at 62-59 with 2:48 left. But Shockers guard Cotton Tekele answered with a 3 pointer on the next possession, and Ohio State would draw no closer than four points the rest of the night.
“I’m proud of the way our guys came back, dug down,” Matta said. “We put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win the basketball game. But, as I told these guys, you got so close to going to your second-straight Final Four.
“Everybody remembers the last game, but I’m not going to. I’m going to remember the season, because I’m very, very proud of what these guys have accomplished this year.”
“Hopefully,” Craft said, “sometime down the road, we can look back and appreciate what we did.”
Malcolm Armstead led Wichita State with 14 points.
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.